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Architecture as Art Le Corbusier’s Firminy Church illuminates his singular genius b y R i c h a r d P a y n e , F AIA

Over the last few years my wife, Amy Ladner, and I have photographed several of Corbusier’s buildings in France. Before these trips together I had been to India to see his work at Chandigarh, and I can honestly say after photographing architecture for over 40 years, Corbu’s buildings are among the most powerful structures I have seen. St. Pierre in Firminy is typical. It is not only an example of Corbu’s genius, but a wonderful story of the persistence of those who understand and love great architecture, and are willing to preserve it. Corbu designed the church in the early 1960s toward the end of his life, but construction did not begin until several years after his death in 1965. It sat unfinished for 30 years, but was finally completed in 2006—as much a tribute to him as for any need of another religious structure. In fact, the building is now used not as a church but as a sort of Corbu museum with drawings and models on display. Amy and I have traveled twice to Firminy, once during the construction of its final completion and then last year when these photographs were made. While at the site, we spoke to the structural engineer who described the difficulty of building the very thin, cast-in-place, curved exterior walls. The interior spaces of the church are absolutely magical, illuminated by sunshine streaming from “light cannons” in the sloping roof. Colored light also shines through windows placed along the lower section of the exterior walls and shielded from rain by por-

Photos courtesy Richard Payne, FAIA

(above) Completed 41 years after Le Corbusier’s death, the project was supervised by José Oubrerie, who respected the original project design. I took this photo of the southwest corner to show the large light ‘cannon’ and the random placement of colored windows.


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